Adventures in Africa – Story 2

The second adventure to Africa took place only a few months after the first, however this time, I had organised this trip by myself through a company called African Conservation Experience (ACE). ACE have a range of different volunteering projects you can take part in, from working alongside wildlife vets, volunteering at wildlife rehabilitation centres, research-based volunteering, and even having opportunities to work alongside a game capture team. I decided that I wanted to go to Africa for as long as possible, which is 3 months without needing to obtain any special visa. Having finished my diploma in Animal Management, I decided that volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation centre would be a good fit, and so I chose to spend my three months at Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, South Africa. ACE have an option where you are able to select different projects and they will help arrange how you get to each one. 

This adventure started on the 1st of September 2014, which started out with a fairly typical Molly fashioned event where it was discovered the suitcase wasn’t going to shut just over an hour before I had to leave. This led to a flustered scurry of action with mum racing me into my local town to find a gigantic suitcase, repack everything, gobble some lunch down and head off to Heathrow airport. 

A few weeks before the trip, I had joined the ACE Facebook group to find out if there were any others travelling at the same time, and maybe even going to the same project. It turned out that there were two other girls, which filled me with a tiny amount of confidence, as this was the furthest I had ever gone without some form of adult supervision. 

We made it to Heathrow with about 4 hours to spare (typical of my mum to always make me hours early). I met up with the two girls and after a bit of food and meeting their parents at Costa, we went through security and eventually onto our flight. The flight was going fairly well until about four hours from the end, I hadn’t gotten up at all in the past 7 hours, and I wasn’t wearing flight socks. Due to not much blood being in the area it was most needed (my brain), I ended up passing out and caused a very minor medical emergency on board. I recovered fairly quickly though and made it to Johannesburg in a good enough condition that a hospital visit wasn’t required. 

When we reached Johannesburg, we were met by Martin (I think that was his name), and he was there to make sure we got some food and then to sort us into various groups to send us off into a few different combis (mini-buses) to be driven to different projects. There were volunteers from all over the world arriving into the group at various times throughout the morning. I think we ended up leaving the airport at maybe 10:00 or 11:00am. I was fairly excited to be going to Moholoholo again, having done the drive in the opposite direction four months prior, I couldn’t wait to see all the amazing scenery again. A lot of people imagine Africa as having quite a flat landscape but, I can in fact confirm, that is not the case. When we arrived at Moholoholo, we were greeted by the volunteer co-ordinator who showed us to our rooms and helped us take our bags there. We arrived just in time to jump in and help with the afternoon rounds. 

Gorgeous Lumi, my Hyena friend. As part of my rounds, I had to check that the hyenas had enough water and fill it up every morning.

The daily schedule at Moholoholo started at 7:00am if you were only on morning rounds that day, which continued to 8:30-9:00am when you then walked down to breakfast. Breakfast and dinner were served at Moholoholo Forest Camp, which is on the same land as the rehab centre. After breakfast, which finished at around 10:00am, you walked back up to the rehab centre and got ready to start “big jobs”. Big jobs involved the cleaning of all the larger animal cages as a staff member needed to be present to ensure safe practices were taking place. The animals on the morning/afternoon rounds were the smaller, less dangerous animals, and all the birds. The big jobs finished at lunch time which was about 12:30 – 1:00pm, depending on how quick the jobs were, which depended on how many volunteers there were. The afternoon was then your time to do what you wished until 4:00pm when afternoon rounds started. Afternoon rounds finished at 6:30-7:00pm where you then needed to quickly get ready to go to dinner. At dinner time you get driven to the Forest Camp because it’s pitch black and there are wild animals roaming on the land around the centre. After dinner, most of the volunteers went to bed, ready to get up early the next day. 

The schedule sometimes changed depending on which group you were in. The volunteers are split between four groups which you stay in for your whole stay. Each of these groups are responsible for specific animals and enclosures for morning/afternoon rounds. The groups also have extra tasks every four days, one of them being helping out in Brian’s Aviary, which means being there at 6:00am, and the other being to collect lunch as this is eaten in the volunteer common room. These tasks tended not to be on the same day, however, if there are less volunteers, sometimes groups will team up to help each other out. 

The hippos of Moholoholo.

The routine was pretty much the same on a daily basis, but there are extra activities that the centre run themselves, and also external activities that you can book onto. The main activity that the centre runs is an afternoon game drive to see the wild animals on the reserve. This could include impala, nyala, zebra, giraffe, hippos and maybe some others if you’re very lucky. They also will sometimes arrange a bush walk with one of the guides. The best activity that they will arrange is to take you to a private game reserve that belongs to Moholoholo called Nhoveni. No tourists are allowed on Nhoveni and some of the sightings I had there were so special. Other activities they can book for you are day trips to the Kruger National Park where an external company comes to pick you up and drive you around the park all day, or another option is to go horse riding. There may be other activities, but those are the two I went on, and so they’re the only options I remember. 

We ended up watching the capture of Eland at Moholoholo Mountain View, the property just down the road.

There will sometimes be days where the schedule is completely messed up, normally from having to go and collect an unwanted wild animal from a farm or rescuing animals that have been potentially poisoned. Poisoning, poaching, and human-wildlife conflict are the biggest issues with wildlife in Africa and it can lead to seeing some pretty horrendous things, so just be prepared for the worst in some situations. It can also lead to capturing young animals that aren’t doing so well, as they may need the added care of being hand reared. 

Feeding baby Gerald. (For reference, I am 5’2″)

There are usually always babies needing care at Moholoholo, from a range of antelope species, to rhinos, elephants, hippos, giraffe, and even some predator species. While I was there, the three main babies included a white rhino, a giraffe, and a sable antelope. There are also other animals that need care, such as a blind wood owl, Woody, who I fed every day with him sat on my knee as that was his favourite place. There are so many things that you will experience at Moholoholo, that the money you spend is absolutely worth it. 

Saturn the cheetah, who always purred whenever I was trying to phone home.
At some point during your stay, you will get to join a tour of the rehab centre that they provide for day guests. A Cape vulture is incredibly heavy for my tiny little arms, I believe they’re about 11kg.
Health-checking Lika mum’s babies.

After having spent 3 months there, I now wish I had considered going onto some different projects as I think 2 weeks to a month would have been enough, however because of the length of my stay, I was able to experience so many more things than others that had shorter stays. I have never regretted spending so much time in such a beautiful area though. 

Adventures in Africa – Story 1

My first adventure to Africa, now six years ago, was organised by Sparsholt College Hampshire, which is where I attended my A levels to achieve my Level 3 Extended Diploma in Animal Management. Sparsholt organised the trip with the touring company African Insight, where I had the privilege of meeting one of the most knowledgeable and passionate guides in the whole of South Africa, Marc Holcroft (at least he was compared to all the guides I’ve ever met, in my opinion). I will forever be grateful to have had the chance to meet Marc, who was the original spark in my passion for travelling to South Africa. 

Elephants in Kruger. Taken in June 2019 – I hadn’t started photography on this tour so I don’t have any photos from then.

African Insight, the company that set up the tour, specialises in academic tours, internships and volunteering, and they arranged some pretty amazing locations for us to visit. Due to the tour being organised through the college, I believe the total cost was around £1,500 which included our flights. This trip took place in May 2014, and I was even lucky enough to celebrate my 18th birthday on this tour. 

The first place we visited was Somkhanda Game Reserve near Durban. We took the overnight flight from London Heathrow to Johannesburg, and then got the connecting flight from Johannesburg to Durban. I don’t remember what airline it was, although I have a feeling it was South African Airways. We then were piled into what the South Africans call “combis” or what we know to be mini-buses, and our bags were packed into trailers. I’m not too sure how long the drive was, but it could have been 4-6 hours maybe. When we got to Somkhanda, we found out we were going to be camping in tents. Quite a fun activity, especially after being told wild rhinos roam around the camp at night (very comforting for someone who always needs the loo at ungodly hours). The most discouraging thing about the bathroom arrangements is that there were no solid doors, just a chain to put across that read “no entry”. It was wintertime; however, I don’t remember being too cold at any point on this particular trip. 

After a 3 day stay at Somkhanda where we experienced bush walks and game drives, we headed on to Swaziland (or Eswatini as it’s now known). In Swaziland, we stayed at a place known as Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. I believe we did a couple of bush walks led by Marc, as there were no predators on this reserve, except a few crocodiles in the dam, who seemed content guarding a tree for the slim chance a weaver bird might fall from one of the many nests into their jaws. I also remember we watched an old film about a Land Rover named Jezebel (if I’m not mistaken), which was pivotal in the early days of conservation in Swaziland.  We also learned about their work in helping to recover roan antelope from near extinction. 

We left Swaziland and headed for the Kruger region, a place that has become somewhat of a second home to me over the years, and this trip was my first time ever seeing this beautiful region. Our first stop in the Kruger area was, in fact, the Kruger National Park. We stayed in the bungalows in Skukuza camp, however, having done a self-drive and booked the accommodation myself, I now know we were in the cheapest accommodation before camping as we had to use communal bathrooms. The Kruger always performs, and it certainly did for a bunch of excited 18 year olds. I believe we found leopards, lions, lots and lots of elephants (as per usual), and potentially even rhinos. We also found a whole host of other species including buffalo, giraffe, hyena, and a bunch more that I can’t remember. The three days at Kruger were some of the best I’ve ever experienced, you never know what you’re going to find with wildlife, but we certainly saw a lot in 3 days. There were many, many species of bird too, which Marc always knew whenever we asked him. 

Cheetah from Kruger June 2019

Kruger Park then came to an end and we were off to our final destination for the last 3 days of our trip. Our last 3 days were spent in a location that has much relevance to my next adventure to Africa, which you’ll discover more about next week. We stayed at Moholoholo Mountain View, an absolutely spectacular location as it’s right in front of the Drakensburg Mountains. We had some game drives and bush walks at Mountain View, but we also had a number of day trips to locations around this base. One of our visits took us just down the road to Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, the main feature of the next blog. At the rehab centre, we got to go on a tour to learn about the animals they keep and rescue. There is a whole variety, from cheetahs, lions, leopards, servals and caracals to hyenas and wild dogs. They have many other mammal species and also specialise in the rescue of birds, as birds in the area are affected quite largely by poaching and telephone wires. 

Some of the other day trips took us to locations such as Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre, who specialise in breeding programmes of Cheetah, especially King Cheetah. I’m not quite sure if they look after other animals, although I have a feeling they might. We also went to Kinyonga Reptile Centre (formerly Khamai Reptile Centre), where we watched a dangerous snake handling demonstration. We were allowed to get involved in learning how to handle snakes with a snake hook, however, having learned how weak my forearms are from a previous experience at college, I decided not to take part in this particular activity. They also brought out a baboon spider, explaining the issues with them and the fact that they are at least Endangered, maybe Critically Endangered.

Hyena cubby from Kruger June 2019

After a lot of fun and learning, it finally came time to say goodbye to African sunsets, beautiful African animals, our guides, and my friends, as this trip took place right at the end of my final year at college. We drove in the combis all the way back to Johannesburg airport with a few stops at popular locations on route. I had my first experience of Harrie’s pancakes in Dullstroom on this trip, as well as seeing the rhinos at the Alzu pit stop (again, I think that’s what it’s called). We arrived at the airport and gathered our belongings ready to catch the 10.5 hour flight back to Heathrow.

This trip was such a learning experience, not only from everything the guides taught us, but just from being so far from home without my parents for the first time. Although I can’t remember too many specifics from this trip as there was a lot going on, I can remember the locations vividly and feeling so overwhelmed with emotion at times. Africa is a powerful place, it draws you in and you feel like you never want to leave, which I can’t help feeling is us being called back to our origins, as human life began on the continent of Africa. This trip wouldn’t have been the same without Marc as our guide, who sadly passed away earlier this year after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain tumour. I am truly blessed to have known him at one time in my life. 

Link to the story of Jezebel and pioneering conservationist Tim Reilly https://wildernesselements.com/2016/01/22/jezebel/

African Lion

Panthera leo

Mama lion in Ngorongoro crater. Tanzania 2018.

Size: Male – Total length is between 2.5-3.3m, shoulder height is 1.2m. They generally weigh between 150-225kg. Female – Total length 2.3 – 2.7m, shoulder height is 1m. They generally weigh between 110-152kg

Male Lion on the Mashatu reserve. Botswana 2019

Identification: Lions are the largest of the African cats. There is sexual dimorphism between adult males and females, as males have a mane, whereas females do not. They have reddish-brown to pale tawny fur, with lighter underparts (with exceptions such as the white (leucistic) lions of the Timbavati). The cubs will also have pale spots on their sides which generally disappear by adulthood. The males’ mane extends from the sides of the face, down the neck and onto the shoulders and chest. The colour of the mane ranges from a pale tawny to black. The darker the mane, generally the higher in the hierarchy the lion is. 

Diet: Meat (Obligate Carnivore) – generally small to medium sized antelopes, but in large prides they will take down large animals such as buffalo or young elephants. Some lions have even worked out how to hunt giraffe. 

Habitat: A very broad range of habitats from desert edges to open savannah and woodland. They are absent however from equatorial forest. 

Location: South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia. They generally occur south of the Sahara , but are excluded from the equatorial forest areas. 

Breeding: No fixed breeding season, with a general litter size of 1-4, but can be as big as 6 occasionally. The gestation is 110 days, and the cubs weigh about 1.5kg at birth. The lioness will leave the pride to give birth to the cubs and will return once the cubs are bigger and stronger, which is usually when the cubs are 1-2 months old. Not only will the mother suckle the cubs, but any other female that is lactating with her own cubs will also suckle another’s cubs. The cubs may remain with their mothers for up to 2 years or longer. The males will generally be kicked out when they are old enough to prevent inbreeding. If a new male takes over the pride, any young cubs will be killed so that the adult females go into oestrus and he can have his own cubs. Mating is a rather arduous task, this is due to the frequency of the matings. Mating will occur every 20 minutes or so for 3-4 days. 

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Lifespan: 13-15 years in the wild. An average of 13 years in captivity, with the longest living to have made it to 30 years old. 

Behaviour: Quite a large proportion of lion behaviour includes sleeping, as they sleep for 20-21 hours a day. Lion hunting behaviour is fairly interesting in that they need a lot of patience and skill (and also a good amount of luck sometimes) to catch their rather fast food. Lions are able to run at speeds of 48-59km per hour, but they are only able to maintain this speed for about 100m or so. Therefore, they rely on stalking behaviour to get as close to their prey as possible before making an attack. They use dense cover such as bushes or long grass, and will do a walk with their bellies pretty much on the ground. Once close enough, they will run at the prey, especially if the prey is not being attentive, but will stop and hunker down in the grass if the prey looks in their direction. The majority of hunts are group activities, and it is usually the females that will do the hunting, however, the male will generally get to eat first. There was a study done that looked at different lion hunting techniques, such as a single lion hunting or in a group, they found that only 17-19% of hunts were successful for solitary lions, compared with 30% of hunts for groups of 2 or more lions. Their success rate still being considerably low compared to other predators such as wild dogs, another group hunting animal. 

Two female lions playing with each other. Ngorongoro crate. Tanzania 2018.

Lions have a number of ways they communicate with each other, which include Olfactory, Visual and Tactile communication. Olfactory communication uses scent marking such as urine-spraying which will cause the flehmen response when another lion comes into contact with it so that they are able to extract the “message” from it. Visual communication comes in the form of body posture, facial expressions and tail position. For example, if the ears are flat back against the head and teeth are bared, I can assure you that lion is not happy to see you. Tactile communication is in the form of touch, such as social grooming, rubbing faces together, lying next to each other. If you have pet cats at home, they love tactile communication such as rubbing their faces on you, so it must just be a cat thing, or it’s to know they have ownership of you. 

Social Behaviour: The only sociable species of cat. They are well known for their “group” or pride living social structures, it is what stands out most about them. Pride sizes can vary from 3-30 individuals. The pride size is very dependent on food availability. In Botswana, for example, pride sizes are generally never above 6 individuals, whereas in Kruger National Park, South Africa, pride sizes are generally about 12 individuals. A pride will usually have a structure of 1-4 adult males, several related females (sisters or cousins generally), only one of the females is dominant, and there will also be several sub-adults and cubs. 

IUCN Red List Status: Vulnerable

Population Trend: Decreasing

Mature individuals: 23,000-39,000 

Threats: Threats are made up of mostly human-based activities, such as, housing and urban areas, agriculture – which includes livestock farming and crop farming, they are also hunted and trapped – either for the black market as pets or as bones for Chinese medicine. Lions will often be killed if they are near rural villages as they may pose as a threat to livestock or human life. Logging and wood harvesting and also war, civil unrest and military exercises are having an impact in some locations. There is also the highly controversial issue of canned hunting and whether that is beneficial to conservation or not. 

Conservation: There are a number of different conservation action plans in place, depending on the biggest threat in the area they are protecting. Different locations have different problems, however the general conservation plans and actions include In-place land/water protection where it’s needed. In-place species management which also includes ex-situ conservation such as breeding programmes in zoos. There is also In-place education which includes education for locals and also international groups. 

Fiesty cubby. Ngorongoro crater, Tanzania 2018.

Interesting facts: The Afrikaans word for Lion is Leeu, and the Swahili word is Simba. 

Safari Etiquette for Self-drive

The final post in this series for taking yourself on a self-drive, and probably the most important of all of them, correct safari etiquette. Safari etiquette has a number of different topics to think about, the first and absolute utmost is adhering to the park rules. After you have made your reservation, you will be sent through a number of different PDF documents, all of which you should print and take with you as they contain important information. One of those documents will include the park rules. There are quite a number of park rules, but one of the most important that you must not disobey is that you must stay in your car unless you are in a designated area. You are not even allowed to open your car door unless in a designated area. This rule is mainly due to safety, as with some areas being very thick bush, it makes it incredibly hard to see if there are any animals hiding behind them. If you are out of your car, you may get a nasty surprise of an animal appearing right next to you. There are areas within the park where you may alight from your vehicle such as the camps, picnic areas, and bridges. Please read the rules and check the signs to make sure which areas are safe for you to get out of your car. If you are exiting your car in an area that wildlife may still be found, such as picnic areas, bird hides, bridges, and viewing points, make sure to have a very thorough look around to ensure it is safe to leave your car. An animal isn’t really aware of people in cars, they can’t even tell there are people in open game trucks unless the silhouette of the car is broken by a stray leg or arm, so just be sure to be very careful. 

You will often get large numbers of cars at sightings of leopards, or any big cat really.

Another area of safari etiquette to be aware of is your behaviour at game viewings. In the south of the Kruger park, there are usually a large number of tourists, which means most of the time you are spotting for large car gatherings rather than animals. When you reach a viewing, be very, very patient. No one will be happy with you pushing in, shouting and carrying on. Not only is this behaviour disrespectful to other people who may have been waiting longer than you, but that kind of behaviour may disturb the animal and cause them to move away, ruining it for everyone. There will be people who behave like this, I have been a witness to it myself, but the best thing to do is to not stoop to their level of idiocy yourself. It is also important that if you are at a sighting, that you don’t hog it, preventing anyone else seeing it. That kind of behaviour is rude and selfish as everyone is there for the exact same reason – to see wildlife. Make sure to have a good look at the animal, get your photos and then once you feel like you’re done, move on so that someone else can take your spot and have a nice viewing of an animal. On the flipside to this, it is quite common for people to pull up and tell you where they’ve seen animals. We had a few experiences of this with very kind people tell us where they have found leopards, cheetahs and such. It is very important though that you never tell anyone that you have seen a rhino. For the rhino’s protection, keeping their location a secret, even from other tourists is especially important as they are one of the most highly sought-after animals for poaching. We all wish that everyone has good intentions and they’re only asking so that they can say they’ve seen the big 5, but you just never know. So even if you just drove past a rhino, you can’t tell anyone that, they’ll just have to find it for themselves! 

A very happy, zen cheetah. Again, another animal where large gatherings of cars are common.

Important things to know when driving around animals:

Understanding animal behaviour, and how to be safe when driving around them, is very important. Especially so after you’ve maybe come too close by accident and now you don’t want to stress the animal out. Generally, the animals are habituated to cars in the Kruger, meaning they have a high level of tolerance of vehicles, but they are not tame and definitely not approachable. In general, animals are pretty much completely unaware of people inside vehicles, even open game-viewers, this is due to them seeing in black/white/grey tones and so a car just appears as a block to them. As soon as someone breaks the outline of the vehicle however, they are then very aware that there are other living creatures in that vehicle. Anything such as sticking an arm or leg out of the side of the vehicle, or opening a door and peering out of it, can alert an animal to your presence. So, it’s very important that you keep all limbs inside the vehicle.

We were very lucky to come across this small family of hyena, I think there were 3 babies and a mother, or at least an adult with them. This cub I would guess to be around 4-5 months old. These hyenas were right next to the road and so we had to be especially careful when putting our cameras out the window, that none of our body parts followed.

Now comes the tips on generally driving around animals. In the Kruger, the speed is limited at 50kmph, or about 30mph. I actually preferred driving a lot slower than this to really have a good look around to spot animals, making sure you’re able to stop suddenly if an animal were to appear right in front of you in the road. By going slowly, it also means you can check thoroughly to try and see where animals are, which is even more difficult in areas with very thick bush. We had quite a problem with elephants suddenly appearing on the road out from areas of thick bush, they are almost completely invisible because of their grey colour, especially in winter where the branches are a fairly dull colour too. Provided you are on the road first and they encroach your space, as long as you stay completely still and don’t rev the engine or anything, they will typically just walk by with no trouble. We had one instance where we arrived at the same point of the road as an elephant at pretty much the exact same point in time, the elephant therefore felt a little uncomfortable with us being in their space, and so we reversed very slowly just a few metres to show we weren’t a threat, the elephant then showed it was relaxed and continued crossing the road, heading off across the plains. You may be wondering how I could tell the elephant was a bit uncomfortable with us being that close, and the signs were all in the body language. The body of the elephant was side on as it was going across the road, but it had turned its head towards us with the ears were flared forwards. When the ears are flared forwards, they are trying to appear bigger and more “threatening” to warn you not to get any closer. My boyfriend was driving at the time, I told him to stop for a few seconds just to see what the elephant did, when the elephant stopped and continued to look at our car with its ears forwards, I knew we were inside its comfort zone and that we needed to give it space. So, very slowly, and trying hard not to rev the engine too loud, we reversed maybe 5-10 metres; just to give the elephant space and to show we weren’t any danger to them. At this point, the elephant’s ears dropped and started gently flapping again (a sign that they are relaxed and content), and the elephant then proceeded to walk off in the general direction they were heading originally. 

So, let’s look at why the elephant may have been slightly on edge with us being that close. Animals generally have 3 zones which determine which behaviour they may perform, which are 1 – Fight Zone: an animal in the fight zone has no time or space to flee from the danger – will often attack. 2 – Flight Zone: the animal has time and space to move away from the danger – poses little threat and will flee. 3 – Comfort Zone: the animal is completely relaxed with the presence of a threat or danger at this distance – they don’t see a reason to attack or flee. See the diagram below to understand the positioning of these zones, the animal will be in the centre of the rings:

You should always aim to be in the animal’s comfort zone, appearing unthreatening and allowing the animal to feel safe and behave naturally. If the animal ends up being close to you, remember to watch their body language and if required, reposition yourself quietly, slowly, and calmly.

I can’t remember if this was the herd we ended up slightly too close to, however, you can see here that they are pretty relaxed as their ears are flopped back. If they were alert, their ears would be very forward, the trunk may even be raised and they would face us with their whole body.

If you would like to approach an animal to get a better look, or a better position to take a photograph, think about the angle in which you are approaching the animal and what might appear as threatening and dangerous to them. If you drive straight at an animal, the animal may think you are trying to attack them and, with enough distance between you, may run off. If you are close, they may feel provoked and attack. The best thing to do is to approach at an angle where you are facing slightly away from the animal but can easily come alongside them. Remember to mind your distance so that you don’t make them feel threatened, I would suggest 20 metres as a minimum. Keep watching their body language for signs that they’re beginning to feel threatened by your presence such as if they’re facing right towards you, pushing their ears forwards, some animals will even stamp their front legs when agitated. 

I have gained part of this knowledge through reading Beat About the Bush Exploring the Wild, The Comprehensive Guide by Trevor Carnaby, but also through being in the presence of professional field guides and asking them questions on what to do in situations such as ending up too close. 

I once asked what to do if you accidently end up too close to an elephant and how to react. The advice I was given was to stay completely still. If you begin reversing, especially at speed, an elephant will see this as a game or a challenge and will chase you round the whole park. Noise and movement, especially things like using the horn, revving, banging the car doors, or waving arms will be seen as threatening behaviour and if you are too close to an animal, they may see that as reason to attack you. 

When you are viewing animals, make sure to switch the car engine off. Not being able to just drive off may make you feel unsafe, but without the noise of the engine fan, you are actually a lot safer as the car wouldn’t be making agitating noises. Remember that all members of the group in the vehicle need to remain quiet and make as little movement as possible while you are watching. 

Make sure to go and use the bird hides that are available. We went to quite a few of them and found a fairly large variety of birds for the winter time. This is a beautiful African Darter.
Another bird found at a hide – an African Fish Eagle. Absolutely beautiful birds, and definitely a worth while activity if not much other wildlife is about.

I hope all of you have gained some good knowledge on how to go about planning, booking, and going on your own self-drive safari, and once the world has started to get back to a bit of normality, you may all give it a go. I look forward to hearing about your adventures in the future! Feel free to contact me if you have any questions, are planning your trip and want to know about some of the camps, or anything like that. I can’t wait to get back out in the world and I hope I can meet some of you out there too!

Information sources:

  • Carnaby. T. 2018. Beat About the Bush, Exploring the Wild, a Comprehensive Guide
  • Various Field Guiding friends.

Packing for Safari

Even though none of us are going anywhere for now, today we’re continuing with the self-drive safari series of posts. You now know how to book your safari, how to get there, and what to think about with planning the physical aspect of being on your self-drive safari; but now, you need to have a think about how to pack for this. 

Seeing as I’ve been on quite a number of safaris and travels to Africa, I thought I would give you some idea as to what you should bring, and maybe I’ll create a PDF in the future that you can use as a packing list. 

In terms of what to bring, there are a number of different things I like to think about, for starters, how much baggage I want with me and how long I’m going for; it’s also important to think about the time of year you’re going. People seem to forget, that even when on holiday, you can still do laundry, which in the end means your bag will end up a lot lighter. For our safari, we went during the winter (Southern hemisphere winter is from June – August); which means that when the sun’s not up, it can be pretty cold. I’ve experienced temperatures as low as 3°C on one of my visits there, which is pretty cold when you’re not prepared for it. So, what would I advise? I would pack for maybe 3 – 5 days, with plans to wash your clothes. This means you will have a lot more space in your bag and it will weigh a lot less. Last year, we overpacked quite a bit as it was my boyfriend’s first time travelling and I wanted to be sure he would be comfortable, but next time, I think we’ll go a bit lighter. I have also travelled to Cape Town with just a 25-litre backpack, but I was going to visit my best friend, so I didn’t have to take toiletries with me, however there are ways to be light with that too. 

The basic gear – 2 shorts, 2 shirts, fleece, hat, binoculars and head torch.

So here I will include a table of a starter packing list, you are always able to add things you think you’ll need, or take things off that you think you don’t, but these are the basics that I feel would comfortably get you through a 10 day to 2 week safari.

ClothesOuterwearToiletriesFirst aid
3 x t-shirts1 x winter coat (if going in winter)Soap/bodywashplasters & blister plasters
2 x safari shirts1 x rain coatShampoo & conditionerwound wipes/disinfectant (TCP/Detol)
3 x shorts1 x cap/wide-brimmed hatToothbrush, toothpaste & flossParacetamol (& neurofen)
2 x trousers1 x winter hatHairbrush & hairbandsMalaria tabs (ask GP/travel nurse)
2 x PJs1 x flip-flops (good for in the shower)DeodorantOther meds you’re taking/might need
1-2 fleeces1 x walking bootsMoisturiser, lip balm & hand creamAloe vera/Aftersun
5 x underwear and socks1 x trainerssun cream & insect-repellentAntihistamines & antihistamine cream (good for bug bites)
A better picture of the clothes without the hat – notice the colour theme here. I will usually have a couple more shirts and shorts, and obviously PJs and other things, but I wanted to give an idea of the colours and very basic items
Notice how sturdy my walking boots are – you really don’t want a 2 inch acacia thorn going in your foot on a bush walk!

So, as you can see, this table is fairly basic and it’s pretty much everything you would need clothes, toiletries, and first aid wise. You may feel you need to take more, but I’m going to put another table here for other things you might want to think about bringing:

Other things to consider bringing
Camera + lenses (I use a Canon 7D mike and 100-400mm lens with a 1.4x extender) (& charger with a couple spare batteries)Water bottle (we use reusable bottles as you can drink the water in the Kruger, but you can also buy bottled water from the shop)
Binoculars (really important if doing lots of bird watching/trying to find animals)Cool bag (keeps food a bit better in the daytime heat)
Mammal bookHeadphones, phone and charger (you’d be surprised how many people forget these)
Bird book Laptop (& charger, for downloading photos)
Laundry detergent (I use Dr Bronners’ which has 21 uses, so I could use it as a body wash and shampoo too if I really want to save space)Passport & travel documents (take photocopies of ID, insurance etc, and give a copy to a relative/close friend) – again, surprising but people do forget these & wallet with local currency in cash in case card machine isn’t available.
Glasses (if needed) & sunglassesLeatherman or swiss army knife (I carry both because I have them)
Extension lead & converter plug (SA uses 3 round-pin plugs)Very importantly a torch/headtorch (or both) It gets dark! Very dark!!
My rather messy, but functional camera bag. I also take my laptop, chargers and other electricals in this bag as it is my carry-on usually.
I have quite a few mammal and bird books for southern Africa, these two are probably the best in terms of layout and ease of use. You can find a range of books in all of the gift shops in the park if you don’t want to buy any before your trip.

Something to think about with clothes is the colour of them. If you’re in a car, any colour is fine, but at the camps you can book on to different activities, one of which is a bush walk. When you’re on a bush walk, you want to try and be as inconspicuous as possible. The best colours to wear in the bush are greens, browns and lighter greys, with beiges also being acceptable. 

To make your bag easy to find things in, I would strongly suggest using packing cubes. You can easily find them on amazon, and they come in sets in a range of different sizes. You can organise your things into tops, bottoms, outerwear, shoes, or anything you want. 

Some additional items to think about would be a reading book or two, there are no TVs and internet is very limited. You may also want to bring a sketch book if you like to draw or anything else to entertain yourself in your down time. You can have as much or as little down time as you like as you are in charge of your self-drive, just as long as you’re not out of the camp past the time they shut the gates. 

As I discussed in my previous post about helping the environment, when it comes to everything you’re bringing with you, make sure that everything is as eco-friendly as you can possibly make it so that you do not impact the local environment so heavily with any items you may get rid of before returning home. 

I may create a downloadable PDF packing list so that you can refer to it on each of your safari or wildlife holidays. Generally this packing list is what I would use wherever I go in the world, I would just adjust the items I’m taking to better suit the climate I would be going to. 

How to Plan a Self-Drive Safari

Before thinking about taking yourself on a safari where you are driving around a park with completely wild animals, I would strongly suggest going on a proper safari with a trained field guide so that you can watch and learn how to behave around the animals. Field guides (as in the people) can tell you so much about what to watch out for with certain animals and things to think about when you’re driving. I’ve been lucky enough to go to Africa a few times with long stays, so I’ve been on safari vehicles with professional guides a lot (probably in the hundreds if I count all the days I’ve spent on trucks at volunteering places). My boyfriend had never been to Africa before, but luckily, I had. And having been studying wildlife for the last 8 years of my life I have a fairly solid knowledge of animal behaviour.

So now that you have been on safari, you’re thinking of how you can go back, but for much less money. Safaris, especially at private lodges are fairly pricey, so volunteering is a cheaper alternative to go and spend longer in Africa. But you want to be relaxed and not have to do any work as such, right? So, you start thinking about a self-driving safari in the Kruger National Park! Today we’re going to discuss many of the things to consider when booking your self-drive and why it’s worth the extra effort.

Kruger National Park map, taken from a downloadable PDF booklet.

First of all, look at all the different camps and accommodations within the park. My boyfriend and I decided to book our accommodation first as the Kruger is such a popular destination that if we didn’t book it when we did, we wouldn’t have anywhere to stay. We booked the accommodation and everything else 6 months in advance and a lot of the camps were already filling up, so we would strongly recommend starting to plan and book about a year before you plan to go. I luckily had a map of Kruger Park from one of my previous visits, which was incredibly helpful in planning which camps we wanted to stay at. You have to be aware of the distance between each camp, due to the limit of speed you can drive through the park with the obvious activity of game viewing, it can take a while to get to certain locations. We based our route on a couple of camps I had been to before, but also where we would enter the park and leave the park. I’ll talk more about the specific places we stayed later on. 

The next thing we did was book the flights. We wanted to make sure we could actually get to the correct country for our holiday, so we looked at all sorts of flights to find the best deals. We also had to plan for a connecting flight so that we didn’t have to take the 6 hour drive from Johannesburg to Kruger. We flew with British Airways from London Heathrow to Johannesburg, and then a connecting flight with South African Airways from Johannesburg to Nelspruit (Kruger Mpumalanga Airport, which you can see on the map above). 

From there, we had to think about how we were going to get to and around the park, so we looked at rental cars. You can book special tours with professional guides; however, those would be more expensive and you wouldn’t have as much freedom. We booked a fairly small car as it was the cheaper option. I recommend getting a car with a SATNAV to get to the park as the route is a little confusing if you don’t know where you’re going. I had printed out a route from google maps before we left which did the job, but a SATNAV would have been better. The car was fairly good but it was very low down (we ended up with a sedan style car) which made some viewings difficult, so definitely consider hiring a taller car even if it’s a bit extra money. We drove from Nelspruit Airport to Malelane gate which ended up taking nearly 2 hours.

The camps we stayed at were: Berg-en-Dal, Lower Sabie, Letaba, Satara, and Skukuza. I think for the next trip we have decided to stay at less camps for more days. The first two nights we stayed at Berg-en-Dal, as this was the best camp situated nearest the gate we used to enter the park. We looked at Crocodile Bridge, however they didn’t have a restaurant and we knew we wouldn’t feel like cooking after 24 hours of travelling. That’s totalling all the time waiting at airports, flying, and driving to the park. Berg-en-Dal was nice, but it was a rather small and quiet camp with not much going on. The S110 road loop around the camp and the Matjulu watering hole, did offer fantastic sightings, albeit with a lot of other visitors around. We then went to Lower Sabie, which we only stayed at for one night. We now wish we had stayed at that camp for quite a few days, so we’re planning to book more nights there on the next visit. We then went all the way up to Letaba which was pretty much a whole day of straight driving. Letaba was a beautiful camp, but there really wasn’t much wildlife near that camp. Letaba is toward the north of the Kruger which is the less touristy area. This means there are far fewer cars which is nice; but, from our experience, you may also not see very much either. After Letaba, which we stayed at for 3 nights, we drove back down to Satara. Satara is a very good camp and I have been a day visitor here quite a number of times before. From here there are lots of routes you can explore, or even visit Orpen rest camp for the day. Our last camp was Skukuza, this was decided so we could fly back to Johannesburg from Skukuza airport. We’re now thinking that we might fly into Skukuza next time as it is only a 20 minute drive to the camp, rather than the nearly 2 hour drive from Nelspruit to Berg-en-Dal.  

The flights home included a short hop from Skukuza to Johannesburg, and then the long slog of the Johannesburg to London Heathrow over-night flight. The over-night flight is about 11 hours long, sometimes 10.5 hours if the wind is with you. I have now done the long flight between London and Johannesburg 10 times and the even longer London to Cape Town flight 4 times. Sitting in economy class is doable, but I would strongly suggest wearing pressure stockings to help stop the blood from pooling in your feet too much. On long flights like this, it is important that you get up and move around every so often; there are many people who will just sit for the whole flight which is incredibly bad for your health and can greatly increase the risk of developing blood clots internally. 

With the flights, accommodation and rental car, our total cost was about £3000, or £1500 each. This is incredibly cheap for 10 days in Africa. If you booked the same length of stay at a private lodge, you would be talking at least 3 times the price. This cost doesn’t include food, however, there are restaurants at most of the main camps and a shop at every main camp. We used the restaurant for all of our dinners, costing about R250-R300 (About £12-£15) each time for the both of us. Our dinners were mostly either burgers or steaks and the food was absolutely incredible for how little it cost, especially since these sometimes included an alcoholic drink. Think of how much a steak or burger would cost you in the UK, about £10-£15 (at least) each! We also had breakfast a few times at the restaurants, but otherwise, we quite easily found cereal, milk, and bread. The shops were fully stocked with meats, veg, fruit, and other basic necessities to make fairly healthy, filling meals. There are little kitchens in some of the bungalows and communal kitchens for the bungalows that don’t have them, so be sure to check when you’re booking. 

We are hoping to go back again in the next couple of years, maybe for two full weeks rather than 10 days. We’re probably going to stay at fewer camps but stay at each for 5 or so days so that we’re not constantly moving around. We’re strongly considering renting a bigger car, as ours was quite low down and made it difficult to see right next to the car and down some of the gullies. I hope our experiences talked about here will help you feel confident when planning your own self-drive safari. If you have any questions at all, feel free to, post a comment, send me a message on my Instagram @miniwildmol, or send an email to miniwildmol@gmail.com, I’d be more than happy to offer more guidance. I look forward to hearing about your adventures in the future, and maybe we’ll cross paths one day. Look out for next week’s post when I share my advice on what to pack for a safari/wildlife holiday. 

To book your accommodation in the park, use the Sanparks website. The rental car company based at the local airports is Avis, so make sure to book your car through them.

African Elephant Fact File

African elephant Loxodonta Africana

Big breeding herd of elephants. Elephants of all different ages here. Taken in June 2019 in Kruger National Park.

Elephants are the largest living land mammal and animal. Males are usually the largest and can have a shoulder height of 3.2-4m and weigh anywhere in the region of 5000-6300kg (5-6 tonnes). Females can be 2.5-3.4m tall at the shoulders and weigh anywhere between 2800-3500kg. 

Elephants are not easily mistaken for other animals as they are pretty unique in having a long trunk and tusks. Some elephants in certain areas do not have tusks though, but their size and general shape is easily identifiable. African elephants also have large ears which, funnily enough, are in the shape of the African continent (a good indication if you’re not sure which species of elephant you’re looking at in the zoo, although most zoos only have Asian elephants). If you spend lots of time watching elephants, you will notice the ears flap a lot. This is due to them containing lots of blood vessels and the flapping helps to cool the blood which helps to keep the elephant cool. They may also use their trunk to squirt water behind their ears to help cool down. 

There are a number of identification techniques that you can use to identify between males and females and also how old an elephant might be. There are also techniques to identify individuals, but that is only needed when doing very specific research on elephant populations; whereas, the most common thing that people like to know is whether an elephant is male or female and how old it is. To identify between males and females, firstly, look to see whether they are in a large herd. If it is with a large herd and it is a large elephant, it is most likely female. (note: it is sometimes difficult to tell the sex of younger elephants). If the elephant is large and it is alone or only with a couple of other elephants, it is most likely to be male. Another way of identifying the sex of an elephant, is to look at the head shape. Males generally have a rounded forehead, whereas females have a flatter, more angled forehead. Next to each other, male elephants will be larger than the females, although the only time older elephants will be next to each other would be during breeding. 

The elephant on the right has a very flat fave, it’s very angular so we know this one is a female. She is also the largest one in this group so possibly the matriarch. June 2019 KNP

To identify an elephants age, especially a young elephant, comparing its size next to its mother is a good indicator. If an elephant calf is under 1 year, it will fit under its mothers’ stomach. Other age groups are difficult to explain in words, but there is a fantastic diagram showing size and age comparisons in Smithers’ Mammals of Southern Africa A Field Guide. 

If you look at how small the baby is, I would say it would fit under mum’s belly (the large one next to it) so this baby is under a year old. June 2019 KNP

Elephants are able to use their trunk very similarly to a human hand, with the ability to pick up objects ranging from tree trunks, all the way down the scale to small blades of grass. It takes a number of years for young elephants to fully grasp the full use of their trunks, and it is because of this that baby elephants are one of the most entertaining animals to watch. Elephant trunks are pretty much elongated noses with somewhere around 40,000 muscles. The trunk has a few uses, from grabbing branches and fruit off of trees, to sucking up water to spray into the mouth or over the body; and is even used to pick up dust for a dust bath. They have an incredibly good sense of smell which is something to be aware of when on a bush walk and is the reason your guide will try to stay down wind of them so they can’t pick up your scent. 

An elephant using its trunk to drink. June 2019 KNP

As I mentioned, the majority of elephant populations have tusks, and do sometimes serve a purpose, such as resting the trunk, or helping to pull and break grass etc. Some individuals, and even some populations have been found without tusks. The reason behind the tuskless populations is believed to be an evolution due to poaching. It is believed that populations that live in areas with large amounts of poaching developed smaller and smaller tusks over time until they were completely eradicated as a feature. 

Diet and feeding habits: Elephants are herbivores and so their diet is entirely made up of plants. They can consume around 110-135kg a day, with a maximum recording of around 275kg of plant matter in one day. They also usually consume around 100-200 litres of water per day. Elephants are categorized as hind-gut fermenters; this is similar to ruminants; however, they don’t chew the cud or burp, but rather pass a lot of gas. It is estimated that the amount of gas one elephant passes per day could power a car to travel for 20 miles. Their digestion only has about a 50% efficiency which, combined with the amount eaten, adds up to a lot of manure. An elephant can defecate anywhere between 12-15 times per day and that adds up to around 100-115kg of manure a day. 

Distribution of elephants: Elephants once were spread through most of southern Africa, but due to the increase of human populations and the segregation of land, they now have restricted populations throughout the southern African countries. 

IUCN Redlist status: Vulnerable – although the population is thought to be increasing currently (this information was last updated in 2008 however and so needs new research).

Threats: There are many different threats to elephants, the majority of which are due to humans. From habitat destruction right through to poaching, there is a whole range of activities going on that have direct and indirect impacts on the elephant populations. Other impacts come from natural environmental problems such as fires, invasive species, and climate (mostly droughts). 

Breeding behaviour: Elephants generally don’t have a particular season in which they breed, they breed pretty much year-round. Elephants have the longest gestation period of any living animal of 22 months. The elephant calf is around 100kg when it is born and is able to walk after just a few minutes (around 20 minutes after it’s born usually).

Lifespan: The average lifespan of an elephant living in the wild is between 60-70 years. This is affected by external factors, as well as internal factors. Internal factors include the ability to eat nutrient rich foods providing they have healthy teeth.

Elephant teeth:  As well as the modified incisors (tusks), elephants have four molars, one in each corner of the jaw. These molars, unlike our teeth, are replaced throughout the elephant’s lifetime. One molar can average 10-12 inches in length and can weigh more than 3 kg. The molar is perfect for grinding down food due to its shape which is wide and flat. The molars will be replaced six times throughout the elephant’s lifetime; however, once they have worn out the sixth set, the elephant will become malnourished and very sadly die. This is because without its molar, an elephant can’t chew the leaves or bark which is where they get their nutrients from, instead surviving on very soft foods. You will generally see very old elephants near swamps and pans as this is where sludgy soft food is found. This food is not particularly nutrient rich and therefore will slowly cause the elephant to starve. 

Social behaviour and organization: Elephants live in a matriarchal society. This means that the leader (or alpha you could say) of the herd is female. The matriarch is usually the oldest or second oldest female, and the easiest way to tell is that they are normally the biggest in the herd. They are the ones with the most knowledge and experience which they pass on to the next generation. The matriarch knows where all the best watering holes, feeding spots, and resting spots are. Males born into the group will be forced out around the age that they reach sexual maturity (around 12-13 years old, some up to 20 years old) so that inbreeding doesn’t occur. These lone males that have been forced out will usually come together as a coalition and form a bachelor herd. Standard matriarchal herd sizes are about 9-11 individuals, although some can be as small as 2 and some have been seen at 24 individuals. In certain areas, there may be even larger herds. 

This herd here has 13 individuals. June 2019 KNP

There are many different forms of communications amongst elephants. From physical gestures, to sounds. All parts of the body may be used, such as ears, trunk, head, tail, and legs. All of these different parts help with communication amongst individuals, such as bonding behaviours; and are also used when threatened, either by other elephants, a predator, or even a group of people on a bush walk. Some communication is silent to humans but is done through vibrations that they can feel through their feet, often from many miles away, this is known as infrasound. 

This elephant was using its trunk and ears to communicate something. I don’t like to anthropomorphise, but do you think they were waving at me? June 2019 KNP

Interesting elephant facts: 

  • Male elephants are able to itch their bellies with their ‘male appendage’ (this is one of my favourite facts and no one ever believes me until they see it happen, and yes, I have seen it happen more times than I would like to!). 
  • Elephants love marula fruit, but no, it can’t make them drunk. They would have to eat tens of thousands of marulas for it to ferment enough in their gut to make them drunk. 
  • Elephants sometimes get tired from carrying the weight of their trunk and dragging it on the ground and so you will sometimes see them resting it over their tusks.
  • Elephants can be right or left tusked, like how humans are right or left handed. You can tell which side they use more as there will be a deep indent in the tusk. 
  • Elephants have an immense capacity from remembering. This means they can remember food sources they haven’t visited for months, maybe even years. They can remember water sources and even other elephants that they haven’t met up with for a while. The sad part about this though is they can remember traumatic events, such as if members of their herd have been poached. They will often act aggressively towards safari vehicles if there has been a recent poaching incident because they are afraid of the vehicle and what it may contain (poachers). 

Elephants are such wonderful and fascinating animals to watch. Being in the presence of such magnificent animals is pretty breath taking. In all my visits to Africa, I have been lucky enough to be surrounded by them in cars, and be very close to them on foot (For such a large animal they walk very quietly and are very good at sneaking up on you, but that’s a story for another day). Understanding their behaviour is absolutely paramount in making sure a situation doesn’t turn sour and become dangerous. Having been on safari with professional guides so many times, I had a good understanding of what to do when my boyfriend and I went of our very first self-drive safari to Kruger National Park last year. We had some instances of elephants suddenly appearing from behind some very thick bush (yes, elephants are pretty invisible when there’s thick shrubs, bushes, and trees near the road). The key is to not make any sudden movements or sounds when you’ve ended up too close to them by accident. In this situation, we had not encroached their space, but rather they had come into ours as we were on the road first. We just sat there quietly and let them walk by, no revving the engine or shouting at them. We showed respect to them, and therefore, they showed respect to us. Being in such close proximity to them without feeling at all threatened was an honour and a memory I shall cherish forever.

Beautiful elephants. I love the babies so much!!! June 2019 KNP

Information sources:

https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/12392/3339343

https://elephantconservation.org/elephants/just-for-kids/

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/a/african-elephant/

Apps. P. 2012. Smithers’ Mammals of Southern Africa A Field Guide

Stuart. C., Stuart. M. 2015. Stuarts’ Field Guide to Mammals of Southern Africa

Estes. R. D. 2012. The Behaviour Guide to African Mammals

Helping the Environment During the Pandemic

I feel this topic is especially important right now, seeing as it is becoming mandatory for the whole population to start using PPE. If everyone starts using disposable masks and gloves, the pressure on the environment is going to become so immense that the damaging effects may be irreversible. 

Although it is difficult to find exact numbers on the amount of disposable protective gear that has already been put into landfill, some news outlets are saying that there are more masks than jellyfish now. There have already been sightings of wildlife (birds mostly) being tangled up in face masks that have been discarded of irresponsibly. Gary Stokes, the Director of Operations at OceansAsia, was already featured in the news back in February, when he found 70 facemasks along a 100 metre stretch of a beach on the secluded Soko Islands, just off of Hong Kong. This was before the virus had made its way to the rest of the world. He also caught site of a bird of prey (black kite – the most familiar bird of prey in Hong Kong) carrying a face mask in its talons. The news of this before the pandemic really got going is terrifying. With the amount of PPE that each country needs to be able to try and go back to a more normal way of life is staggering. It is estimated that just Italy alone would need 1 billion masks and 500 million pairs of gloves every month. That is just one country, and not even the largest population. It is our responsibility to do as much as we can to stop the amount of waste being produced. 

We already know that when there isn’t a global pandemic going on, 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans every year. Unfortunately, without living near the coast, it is difficult to play my part in helping to clean the oceans by removing trash off of beaches. However, if each and every one of us picks up litter that we find (whilst remembering to sanitize and wash our hands thoroughly when we get home), we can make a real impact on the environment. 

The best thing we can all do is to think about using reusable face masks. There are many thousands of companies and individuals now who are making and selling fabric face masks, in an array of colours, patterns, sizes, and styles. These face masks, providing that the material is double layered, are as good as the disposable type. Think of it this way, if everyone has a mask on, the virus has been filtered twice before it’s even reached your respiratory system, therefore, there is an almost 0% chance of it actually getting to you. Fabric face masks are the perfect choice for everyone, and in the long run, will help to keep your personal costs for buying masks down; once you have used them, you can put them in with your normal load of laundry, hang them out to dry and they’re ready to use again. Therefore, you only need to buy a few masks, and then you’re set to keep using them again and again and again. We have no idea how long this pandemic could go on for, so by having reusable masks, you will always have a supply of them to use as long as is needed. Wearing a face mask may just become a normal way of life and a new trend that everyone catches on to. My hope would be that companies look into using sustainable materials to make fabric face masks and that it becomes the new talking point of fashion, creating a feeling that everyone needs to have one. If this happened, everyone would be wearing masks which would protect the vulnerable people, and with them being fabric masks there is much less burden on the environment.  

These are two of my fabric face masks. I found these on Etsy and thought the design was perfect for me.

Disposable gloves are a difficult topic. In my opinion, gloves are only useful for the doctors and nurses treating patients in hospitals, or in doctors’ surgeries where they’re touching many different people and have to change their gloves between each patient. If we were all to wear gloves, just think of how much waste and pressure that would put on the environment. We would all have to change gloves for each place we go, meaning many millions of gloves being thrown away each day. The other problem with gloves is that if you don’t change them, you are simply moving the virus from one place to another should you come into contact with it. Think about people going to the food store, not changing their gloves and then driving home. You may have picked up the virus on something in the store, and now it’s all over your car door, steering wheel, gear lever, hand brake etc. My boyfriend and I don’t use gloves, but instead we make sure to sanitize our hands thoroughly after each activity. For instance, we go to the food store, do our shopping, and before we touch anything other than the car door, we sanitize our hands. Yes, hand sanitizer bottles produce waste, but in all, they produce a lot less waste than if the whole population were constantly using disposable gloves. Sanitizer bottles, depending on size, can last for a large number of uses and are more easily reused/recycled. If you are really unsure about not wearing gloves, you could use normal pairs of winter gloves, which you can then put in the wash after use, that way you save on producing waste, save money, and have an everlasting supply that you can wash and use over and over again. 

In every situation, there is a solution to reduce your own consumption of waste. Fabric reusable masks are one way to keep ourselves safe during this time, but also a way to reduce environmental impact. There are other areas of life that we can also help. About a year, maybe two years ago, my boyfriend and I decided to switch from shampoo bottles to shampoo bars. We get ours from Lush and it is packaged in a paper bag so that we can get it home without it crumbling everywhere and making a mess. I have incredibly thick hair, and I would go through a bottle of shampoo a month, which in my lifetime, would add up to a lot of plastic waste. By switching to a shampoo bar with easily recyclable packaging, I am making a small, but significant difference in my contribution to helping the environment. The shampoo bar lasts at least a month, maybe even longer. We are also looking to change to bamboo toothbrushes instead of using plastic ones. Having a good toothbrush is important for good oral hygiene, but constantly replacing them with plastic ones isn’t good. There are a few companies online where you can get all sorts of eco-friendly bathroom products, the key is to slowly start to change your products over time as your old ones run out. 

Shampoo bar. You can either get them in paper bags, or you can buy one of Lush’s reusable tins to store them in and take with you when you need to repurchase.
We were in Tesco and found that Colgate have started making bamboo toothbrushes. I’m currently testing this one out, but there are many other eco companies selling bamboo toothbrushes.

The important message here is that you don’t have to change everything in a day, but making small changes over time and consciously choosing to fix the problem rather than being a part of it, will help the earth and environment in so many ways. Even things like making sure to use a reusable water bottle, or reusable coffee cup, can really change the potential of a future disaster. 

My very well used water bottle. This thing has been everywhere with me, including all the way to South Africa. It keeps your water really cold for 24 hours.

One other thing I purchased a little while ago is a bamboo cutlery set. I tend to carry this with me when travelling or going to events etc where I may eat food that requires cutlery. Instead of having to use the plastic disposable cutlery that is normally provided, I have my own reusable set. As well as the usual cutlery, it also comes with chopsticks, a metal straw and a cleaner for the straw, meaning that I am fully prepared to eat anything and have a straw for my drinks that isn’t damaging to the environment.

My bamboo cutlery set in a handy-dandy fabric case so it doesn’t touch anything else in my bag

I hope that everyone who is reading this is prepared to make some small changes in the way that they use different products, so that we can all feel like we are helping to save the earth. If you have already made changes to what you use in your daily lives, or are planning to make changes, let me know in the comments. The most important thing we can do is to share this message. None of us need to live a perfect sustainable lifestyle, but we can all try to do something and be a little bit more conscious of our actions from today. It is better to try, and do it imperfectly, than not trying at all.

Everything together. By using just these few items, this has reduced the amount of plastic waste going to landfill dramatically from my household.

Information sources:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/global-health/climate-and-people/floating-face-masks-recycling-cutbacks-pandemic-has-hit-war/

Product links:

The amazon links are from my affiliate account, this means when you buy this product through these links, I earn a small amount but it doesn’t cost you anything extra.

https://shoreusable.com/products/sho-fortis

https://uk.lush.com/products/shampoo/honey-i-washed-my-hair

The seller I bought my fabric face masks from is no longer selling them, however, there are so many that you can find just by searching for fabric masks that I’m sure you will find a design that you like.

Animal Classifications: what’s in a name?

How and why do we classify animals? 

The seven main levels of classification are: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. You also get subs of each category, such as sub-Class, sub-Order, sub-Family etc. We use this system to group animals that are alike and to know their genetic relationships through history. 

The starting point of all classifications is the Kingdom. There are five groups at the Kingdom level which inform us as to what the thing we’re talking about is. The five Kingdom groups are: Monera, Protista, Fungi, Animalia, and Plantae. These groupings are based on whether the species is single-celled, multicellular, an animal or a plant, and a number of other characteristics that would determine this first level of grouping. The Kingdom grouping only had two groups previously, plants and animals; but as the field of research has developed and technology to see smaller organisms improved, some of these species didn’t fit into the original groupings which is why we now have five. 

There are approximately 35 phyla (plural of phylum), the next grouping after kingdom. Each level of classification is used to specify even more features such as the phylum Chordata which includes all animals with backbones (vertebrates). This level really starts to segregate and organise the species. The number of species belonging to each phylum changes quite regularly as new species are found and more research on known species becomes more advanced. 

Each level becomes larger and larger in number as we specify each animal, plant, single celled organism etc. To find an exact number past the phylum level proved rather difficult as each of those phyla are broken down to the different classes within them. This then breaks down to order and then family and so on. With an estimate of 8.7 million different species in the world, trying to find information on the exact number for all the different levels except for kingdom and phylum (the least specified levels) becomes rather challenging. 

By understanding all the different groupings of every single species, we are then able to build something known as an Extant Phylogenetic Bracket (EPB). An EPB is a sort of tree of life, showing all the connections between every living thing. The full EPB is absolutely huge, but to give you an example of what a small section would look like, see the diagram below. 

Small EPB showing the relationships between birds, non-avian dinosaurs and crocodiles. Taken from my university class notes

From the diagram, we can see that there are past ancestors that connect birds, non-avian dinosaurs, and crocodiles together by going back far enough. This gives a great understanding of evolution and relationships between different species. 

When scientifically writing about an animal, we use what is known as its scientific name (also known as its binomial or taxonomic name). This is made up of the two categories Genus and Species. For example, if I were to write a paper about my favourite animal, the African leopard, I would also include its scientific name: Panthera pardus. The scientific name should always be written in italics, and only the Genus name has a capital letter at the start. The scientific name used to be referred to as the Latin name, however, more often than not now, the names include both Latin and Greek, and therefore it is more accurate to call it the scientific name.

For an example, let’s see what the full classification for the African leopard is. 

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderCarnivora
SuborderFeliformia
FamilyFelidae
SubfamilyPantherinae
GenusPanthera
SpeciesP. pardus
Classification of a leopard

So the Kingdom shows it is an animal, the phylum shows that it is a vertebrate (Chordata), the Class shows it is a mammal, the Order shows that it is a carnivore, and then the suborder indicates it is a feline, and the Family shows it is within the cat family. 

Most of the classification, especially when scientists first started classifying everything, was done purely on an observation basis. The classification would be given due to physical characteristics. Nowadays, whilst observation is still used, genetics are also used to determine the exact lineage of each species. So, we know that the classification helps us link genetically similar animals together and therefore, can help when determining evolutionary lineages.

To keep in the same theme as the cat example, most big cats come under the Genus Panthera, however, a cheetah does not. The cheetah’s scientific name is Acinonyx jubatus, meaning that it is in a different Genus to other big cats. When we think of the physical characteristics of cheetahs compared with other big cats, we can understand why it has been identified in its own genus. 

One of the biggest reasons we classify animals is so that species do not get confused. Most people know animals by their common name, such as leopard, or lion, or elephant for example. But in different countries, they may use a different common name because of their spoken language. The scientific name doesn’t change, regardless of the common name given in any country. Additional subspecies names are also given to differentiate that it may not be exactly the same species in different regions.

Another classification example:

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderArtiodactyla
FamilyBovidae
SubfamilyBovinae
GenusSyncerus
SpeciesS. cafe
Cape buffalo classification

This is an example for a Cape Buffalo – the Scientific name is Syncerus caffer. However, if we look at a subspecies such as the Forest buffalo, it keeps the Syncerus caffer, but you need to add nanus to the end. Thus, the full name of the forest buffalo is Syncerus caffer nanus

For full classifications of animals, you can use Wikipedia, which is sometimes a good source of information if used carefully. For a more reliable source of this information, you can use the IUCN Red List, which is also what determines how endangered animals are. 

Information sources:

Giraffe Fact file

Giraffe herd, fairly certain this is on the land at Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre when I went back to visit.

Giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis

IUCN Red List Status: Vulnerable (as checked July 2020)

Size: Male – around 4.6-5.7m tall, with an average weight of 970-1400kg. Females are usually less than 5m tall, and have an average weight of 700-950kg.

Identification: easy to identify, cannot be confused with anything else. Tallest living land mammal, with long necks and legs, and pattern covering whole body.

Giraffe tracks are easily identifiable and are not easily confused with other animals. The largest males can leave tracks the size of dinner plates.

Females vs Males: you are able to identify males or females by looking closely at their faces. Males will have thick ossicones, which are sometimes missing hair at the top, while females will have thinner ossicones. The ossicones are the horn-like protrusions at the top of the head. Males will also sometimes be darker than females, however, some females have been found to be dark, so the colouration is not always reliable. The males are usually larger when fully grown.

Male giraffe from the Kruger National Park. Look at his ossicones and how thick they are. They are also bald on the top, which is due to necking.

Breeding and gestation: the gestation of giraffes is 457 days (longest of any ruminant), and they will only give birth to a single calf. Calves weigh around 100kg at birth, with a shoulder height of around 1.5m. A giraffe gives birth stood up, meaning that the calf will fall about 2m which helps to break the umbilical cord. The fall doesn’t hurt the calf particularly as they are such large babies, although they may make a little thud when they do hit the ground. A giraffe calf will wean at about 6-8 months old, and the mother will have a gap of around 16-25 months between births.

Lifespan: up to 20 years (in females).

Predators: the only animal that actively hunts giraffe are lions, but only in certain areas. Hunting giraffe is a very dangerous activity as they have very long and powerful legs which is capable of delivering a nasty blow to anything hunting it.

Species of giraffe: According to the giraffe research charity Giraffe Conservation Foundation, research has recently proven that there are four distinct species of giraffe and five subspecies. Previously it was believed that there was just one distinct species and eight subspecies. Only two of the four main species devolve into subspecies. To see the division of giraffe species, see the table below:

Main species of giraffeSubspecies of giraffe
Masai giraffe Giraffa tippelskirchi
Northern giraffe Giraffe camelopardalis– Kordofan giraffe G. c. antiquorum
– Nubian giraffe G. c. camelopardalis (Also known as Rothschild’s)
– West African giraffe G. c. peralta
Reticulated giraffe Giraffe reticulate
Southern giraffe Giraffe giraffe– Angolan giraffe G. g. angolensis
– South African giraffe G. g. giraffe

Interesting giraffe facts:

  • Giraffe tongues are between 45-50cm long
  • The tongue is highly muscular and prehensile and is used to help avoid spikes and spines when feeding on trees.
  • The tongue is a blueish/purplish colour, the reason being is to protect it from harsh UV rays from the sun. As giraffes feed on the tops of trees, feeding for long hours in the sun could put them at risk of burning their tongue if it hadn’t evolved this way.
  • Although giraffe necks are around 1.8m long, they have the same number of neck vertebrae as us, which is 7.
  • A group of giraffes can be called a tower or a journey. I have been told that it depends whether a group is on the move or standing still feeding.
  • The Swahili word for giraffe is Twiga. The Afrikaans word is Kameelperd.

Common behaviours to spot: male giraffes can often be seen performing a behaviour known as necking. This is where they are stood side-by-side and swing their necks into the other. The blows delivered are incredibly powerful, the results of which can sometimes be fatal.

The giraffe population is currently declining, and giraffes have already become extinct in 7 African countries, with the main population spreads of giraffe remaining in southern and eastern Africa. The numbers are declining due to a loss of habitat, mainly because of the increase of the human population. Poaching, disease, war and civil unrest are also a major threat to the giraffe population. 

Giraffes are not related to camels, however this group does include one other species which is the okapi. It is known that the giraffe evolved from an animal that looked very similar to an okapi, but the reason that they are not darkly coloured and are much taller is due to them moving out of forest areas and into open savannah. 

Giraffes are thought to make no sound, however this is not true. They are capable of making noises such as bleats, squeals, whistles, and sometimes even snorts and hissing; however these sounds only tend to be made at times of stress. It is thought that most vocalisations are inaudible to the human ear as they may produce infra- or ultrasound; this however still needs to be confirmed. 

Giraffes anatomy is made to help them reach the tops of trees, they are not very well designed for eating or drinking from the ground. The neck of giraffes is actually too short to reach the ground from being stood up, which is why we see them splaying their legs when drinking from watering holes. They also need to splay their legs to eat fresh grass (which is extremely rare), or to pick up bones when needing to perform osteophagia. 

Information sources: